Without the great Greek thinkers, Socrates, Plato and Aristotle, Western Civilization would be a very different place. It would be unimaginably different. So much of our thought and evolution both politically and religiously would be unrecognizable to most of us.
It was the ancient Greek philosophers who spoke of the demos – meaning the population of an ancient city-state – the common people. It is obviously the basis for our word democracy.
Christianity would be a different faith without the writings of Aristotle. St. Augustine Bishop of Hippo, one of the Doctors of the Church, relied heavily on that ancient Greek philosopher’s views in writing his massive tome on the church’s view of God, man and the world in “The City of God.”
Today the news is again filled with the Greeks. Although the coverage focuses on the “Greek debt crisis” – this is as much a philosophical crisis as it is a financial one. It is the same debate that will soon occur among other members of the European Union and in the United States. The philosophical discussion centers around one concept. That question is, “What is the role of the individual and the role of the state?”
Thousands of volumes have been written about the greatness of the ancient Greek city-states who brought democracy to the world. The smaller Greek population were able to defeat the mighty Persian empire, the greatest one of its time. The Greeks had numerous achievements in social advancement, philosophy and mathematics. So what happened?
Let’s fast forward a few thousand years to 1946 and the publication of Nikos Kazantzakis‘ book, “Life and Adventures of Alexis Zorbas.” In 1964 the book was turned into the successful movie, “Zorba the Greek” starring Anthony Quinn and Alan Bates. If you’ve never seen the movie you’ve missed one of life’s great cinematic treats.
The movie is a celebration of life. Zorba is the most care-free of men, savoring every day, every meal, every woman. If St. Augustine’s admonition to, “Love God and do what you want” every found it’s way into the heart of any man, that man was Zorba.
He takes life one day at a time and is unworried about tomorrow. It is a joyful way to live – but it has its consequences.
So we turn to Greece today. The economy is in collapse. The government is renting out the Parthenon to raise revenues to try to pay for years of overspending. Today a “deal” has been worked out with the European Central Bank to “bail Greece out.” This has been months in the engineering – and the truth is that it is coming at a high price to the Greek people and will probably only defer rather than solve that nation’s economic problems.
The fact is that while government may provide jobs, those jobs do not contribute to the growth of any country’s economy. In Greece over sixty percent of the population work for government. (In the U.S. it’s closer to thirty-five percent – an all time high). So what are the lessons that we need to learn.
The first lesson is one that everyone who runs a household already knows. If you spend more than you earn you are going to get into debt. At first, it may be possible to refinance this debt – which only defers the inevitable. You have either to increase your income or you have to reduce your spending or both. This is something that the Greeks have learned the hard way – and which America’s political leaders refuse to address in a serious manner – hence our $15 trillion national debt.
The second lesson is that there is no such thing as “entitlement.” At some point in time, our actions have consequences which frequently are unpleasant. In Greece there is twenty-one percent unemployment with fifty percent of the nation’s youth in that category. There are going to be reductions in pension benefits, reductions in the number of government workers – adding to the numbers of unemployed, a two day national strike has been called by the country’s labor unions, and we can all remember last year’s riots and the violence which took place on the streets of Athens. All this in the cradle of democracy.
The third lesson is that the United States is set on the exact same course – although it will probably be years before we arrive at the place where the Greeks find themselves today. But the longer we defer serious action, the more difficult it will ultimately be to extricate ourselves from our malfeasance.
It is easy to turn to those in elected office and lay the blame at their feet. It is true that they are the ones who ultimately set policy and set the country on the course on which we find ourselves.
But let us never forget that it is “We the People” who elect these individuals. It is “We the People” who have the right and the responsibility to remove those who betray the public trust. It is “We the People” who are, in the final analysis the arbiters of our own fate. And if we abdicate that obligation it will be “We the People” who pay the price for our own irresponsibility.